My Own Private Idaho: Shades of Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky
- X gives this film a 5 [out of 5] Scalpel Rating™ -
This is one of my all time favorite films, and not just because it was directed by Rhode Island School of Design graduate, Gus Van Sant, but because it is filled with metaphors, existentialist philosophy, symbolism, imagery, Classic Literature undertones, and [aside from Keanu Reeve's trite over dramatization], some pretty good acting as well
The film, which was shot in Seattle Washington, Portland/Maupin Oregon, and Lazio, Italy, is LOOSELY based on Shakespeare's Henry IV, and concerns wealthy Mayor, Jack Favor [played by Tom Troupe], his prodigal son, Scott Favor [ Keanu Reeves], and Mike Waters [River Phoenix], a boy whom Scott meets while slumming in the world of male prostitution, killing time as he waits to become heir to his father's fortune.
Scott and Mike cannot be further apart in upbringing, class or personality. Scott is confident, cocky, uncaring, and comes from an upper class family. By contrast, Mike is unsure, clingy, psychologically scarred, and comes from a "trailer trash" background. Mike is afflicted with Narcolepsy, a condition which is brought on by stress, and causes him to fall asleep during the most inopportune moments. In the dream sequences, the brilliant implication is that the movie goes straight from Mike's somniferous head into our own. The shifts in narrative are presented in such a way that, when Mike blacks out, so do we, and we keep waking up in different parts of the story and in different locations, and in this way, we can empathize with his situation and confusion.
When unconscious, Mike is transported back to his childhood where he has vague memories of his comforting mother, who like himself, was a prostitute. Mike is the product of an incestuous relationship between his mother and older male sibling, and when his mother is sent to a mental hospital, Mike is left to fend for himself. This separation haunts him throughout his life. Many times, he awakens on the same stretch of rural highway, somewhere between Portland and his childhood home in Idaho, as if his dreams are trying to help him find his way back home.
For some reason, Mike has latched onto Scott, and is convinced that he is in love with him, perhaps because he has suffered so much abuse in his past, that he can only love those who abuse him in his present situation. Although Scott's abuse is not severe or physical, it does consist of many mind games and a cold and shallow attitude towards Mike's declaration of love. "I love you, and you don't even pay me", he says to Scott, as Scott looks away, unaffected by this statement.
Mike has one goal and desire: to find his birth mother, and reunite with her, and form some kind of loving family situation.
Scott's desire is the polar opposite: for Jack to die, so that he might come into his fortune, renounce his old "friends", and become an "upstanding member of society".
Scott's story is a contemporary reworking of Shakespeare's 'Henry IV', where he plays a modern day Prince Hal, while Jack Favor is King Henry, and Bob Pigeon [wonderfully portrayed by William Richert], is the Falstaffian leader of the band of thieves and hustlers that Scott and Mike belong to.
Scott is in the "scene" as a way of 'punishing' his upper-class and snobbish family, and as an experience for life, as he knows that his life will never remain in this condition when he receives his money. On the other hand, Mike is in the scene, because he has nothing else to fall back on, and it gives him some sort of comfort to have a "family" of people around him, however fleeting or plastic it may be.
The contrast of these two and their desires is presented in a beautiful and visually poetic way. In the beginning of the film, Mike is with an older "client", who insists upon performing oral sex on Mike, and, as he orgasms, we see the road where Mike often finds himself waking from a bout of Narcolepsy, as a house falls from the sky, crashing into pieces on the road, much like his dreams of having a home and perfect family.
In another scene, Scott talks blankly about his life and upcoming fortune, as he is superimposed onto gay magazine covers, posing as if he is the most wonderful catch in the Portland/Seattle male prostitution scene.
The sex scenes between Scott and a male client, and another between Scott and his future wife, are shot in a series of stills, which lack any sort of emotion or attachment to the act itself. By contrast, the scene where Mike confesses his love for Scott, is gently lit, by the embers of a campfire, creating a soft, emotional and delicate image.
Several times in the movie, the film cuts away to images of Salmon swimming upstream, as the camera tilts subtly on its axis. The use of the Salmon was symbolic, as salmon make their way up particular streams, the ones that lead back to their specific place of birth. It is there that they progenerate, and make way for the next generation. This image reinforces Mike's deepest purpose in life: to be given a second chance at what he desires most.
Another repetitive theme in the movie is the use of the number 4. One of Mike's strangest clients, asks him to dress up as The Little Dutch Boy, and scrub his apartment, as the client tells him that 4 is the luckiest number, and goes on to explain that he was born on March 4, 1944, "the luckiest day of all". Throughout the film, Mike wears and old and beaten Army jacket, with the number 4 on the top of the sleeve, and several times, when he has an attack of Narcolepsy, the camera shoots the scene from an aerial view, and we can see that Mike has passed out with his foot touching the other knee, which visually forms the number 4.
The use of the number 4 in the film is quite significant, as it represents the "nuclear family", which is the one thing that Mike wishes for throughout the film, and in all my discussions with others on this film, NO ONE has seemed to notice the obvious repetition of this number, nor what it signifies in the film.
This film also reminded me of Dostoyevsky's 'Crime and Punishment', in which Rodion Romanovitc Raskolnikov, suffers from epileptic seizures. He has some of the same moods and traits as Mike Waters does: Both live in unreal worlds, suffering mental trauma, and being detached from the ordinary progression of time, by their conditions, although Mike seems to be a much more unselfish and kinder person than Raskolnikov.
How wonderfully odd, that a film about male hookers, and drug/child abuse, is portrayed so beautifully as to remind one of Classic Literature.
The theme of coldness vs. attachment is played out several times in the film, but perhaps not so perfectly as at the simultaneous funerals of Jack Favor, and
Bob Pigeon [who dies of a "broken heart" when Scott receives his inheritance, and denounces him and the other members of the gang]. In one section of the graveyard, we see Scott, with his new wife, looking quite bored, as a eulogy to Jack is being read. On the outskirts of the cemetery, the band of street urchins play accordion, cry and chant around the coffin of Bob, who was, in a way, their "spiritual" father. This theme of a world of coldness is also further foreshadowed and explored in the tag line to the film "wherever.... whatever.... have a nice day"
Other memorable performances are by the wonderful German actor Udo Kier, as the perverse and smarmy Hans, Sally Curtice, as Jane Lightwork, the old woman who "runs" the abandoned hotel in which Bob and his band of criminals live in, and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers as Budd.
The film concludes with Mike, who has once again suffered an attack of Narcolepsy, on the familiar rural road, just after he says "I'm a connoisseur of roads. I've been tasting roads my whole life. This road will never end. It probably goes all around the world." This is Mike's fate: to seek the love of his mother, and family,which he shall never find, nor possess, while Scott continues to live in the comfort and security of a family whom he has never loved.
An automobile drives down the road.... two men get out and steal Mike's belongings and shoes, and leave him there.... another car drives by and stops, picking up Mike's sleeping body from the road, and places him into the car...............
This road will never end. It probably goes
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